In a world where antimicrobial is becoming an arms race between bacteria and science, novelty is key. Despite this, it’s been over 30 years since a new class of microbials made it to the clinic. But, that could be about to change. ELRIG ECP Impact Award winner Kirsty Smitten has successfully synthesised and developed two novel antimicrobial compounds that exploit a new chemical space that is radically different from any available antibiotic or structure in development.
Here, Kirsty shares exclusive insight into her research, why the fight against antimicrobial resistance is so important, and her drive to improve societal health and patient outcomes.
(Q) Please can you provide us with a brief overview of the research that won you the ECP Impact award?
(A) I synthesised and developed two novel antimicrobial compounds that exploit an unchartered area of chemical space. Excitingly, the compounds novel target gives us the capability the bring a new class of microbials to the clinic! They target Gram-negative bacteria and have shown to have comparable activities to clinically available antibiotics, but more than that, they retain these high activities in extensively-drug resistant strains and have been found to be non-toxic and exhibit antimicrobial efficacy in vitro and in vivo. These results are really encouraging.
(Q) Why is the research of antimicrobial resistance and microbiology so crucial?
(A) Antimicrobial resistance poses a great threat to global health, which is why the World Health Organisation has highlighted the development of new microbials as a critical priority. A recent review by economist Jim O’Neill found that antimicrobial resistance is currently responsible for 700,000 annual fatalities and failure to address the issue by 2050 could result in 10 million deaths per year globally. To put this into perspective, cancer is expected to cause 8.5 million annual deaths by the same year. The emergence of COVID-19 means we’ve now all seen the effect an infectious disease pandemic can have on society and the economy; it is imperative that we act now to prevent antimicrobial resistance from causing similar catastrophes. Ultimately, if we do not discover new antimicrobials, injuries as small as a scratch on the knee could soon become fatal.
It is the significant negative impact of antimicrobial resistance on global health that motivated me to enter this industry. I wanted to actively make a difference within this field, and hopefully the development of these two compounds is the start of that.
(Q) What are the next steps for your career and research?
(A) I am currently finishing my PhD at The University of Sheffield and will be moving to a CEO role at our spin-out company MetalloBio, which has been funded by myself and my supervisor Professor Jim Thomas. MetalloBio will look to build upon my previous research by developing both antimicrobial compounds. The next stages of our compounds’ development are further in vivo preclinical studies. It’s my hope that the development of our two compounds will be successful and that MetalloBio will ultimately bring a new class of antimicrobials to the clinic.
More broadly, I would like our compounds to form the basis of a new platform for antimicrobial research and inspire others to exploit new chemical spaces away from the pre-existing antibiotic classes.
(Q) Why is the ELRIG Impact Award important? What impact will winning have on you and your career?
(A) Winning the ELRIG Impact Award acknowledges my research and contribution to the field, which will help open the door to further opportunities. In addition, the talk will allow me to present my research and foster connections with researchers both within my field, and more broadly within the life science community. I’ve learned that connections like this are invaluable. Who knows? Maybe they’ll enable me to accelerate my technology’s development.
Perhaps most importantly though, my talk and the publicity around my event will increase awareness of my research. I’m incredibly passionate about contributing to the fight against antimicrobial resistance, and part of this is inspiring others to also explore this area.
As an early career professional, it’s also imperative that you make the most of all opportunities. I therefore want to highlight how the prize will allow me to access further career development, which will help me to give my technology the best chance of success. I’d therefore encourage others to enter future ELRIG Impact Awards.
(Q) Do you have any other advice you’d like to share with budding scientists looking to make an impact on the world?
(A) A career in science can be an emotional rollercoaster at times, experiments don’t always go to plan and grants and papers can often be rejected. My most important piece of advice would be to stick with it, especially through the low days. If you are passionate about your research area your hard work and determination will pay off.
And don’t underestimate the importance of networking! Make sure you attend conferences and webinars; this is the best way to network. I have found collaborations within science are the most effective way to make an impact and generate significant results.
ELRIG’s events are very interactive and have large numbers of biomedical early career professional attendees, and better yet, all the events are free to attend! Being part of the ELRIG network is fundamental in the progression of the life sciences; I’ve actually met several potential partners for my technology at ELRIG events so I encourage everyone to go.
(Q) Is there any specific advice you’d give to young women looking to enter industries or sectors that are male dominated?
(A) Entering a male dominated sector can be daunting. Like many, I have had both positive and negative experiences within the world of science as a young woman. It’s critical to remember to trust your abilities and to rise above any negative comments. You have got to where you are because you deserve it.
I’d like to acknowledge that there has been a big push for women in science in recent years. Events like the Global Women’s Breakfast are great and there are support groups such as Life Science support that help open the door for women in science, and I think they’ll help the gender imbalance improve over the coming years. I’d like to encourage other women in science to make the most of these groups and events; the support you receive and the networks you create are invaluable.
Supporting the drug discovery community
At ELRIG, we truly believe that supporting early career professionals in the drug discovery community, and the ECP Impact Award is a small part of our efforts. We were blown away by the calibre of entries for this award and look forward to the Drug Discovery ECP Impact Award later in the year. No doubt, we’ll have another difficult time selecting only one winner!
Kirsty has already had an impressive career to date, having received a first-class MSc in Chemistry from the University of Sheffield before starting her PhD in Chemistry and Microbiology. Throughout her PhD, Kirsty proactively sought and made the most of many opportunities, including participating in the ‘Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research’ (ICURe) programme where she tested and validated her technology in the marketplace. It was here that she was encouraged to start a spin-out company and hasn’t looked back since.
We look forward to seeing Kirsty’s career progress over the years to come and wish her and MetalloBio every success.